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The Deaf Federation of South Africa (DeafSA), South Africa’s largest organisation representing about one (1) million Deaf population, which is recognised internationally by inter alia the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), hereby demands that Deaf people’s only language namely South African Sign Language (SASL) be recognised as the 12th official language.


DeafSA, formerly known as the South Africa National Council for the Deaf (SANCD), was founded in 1929, as a result of the need to provide services to the Deaf community on a national level. DeafSA is registered in terms of the Non Profit Organisations Act. Since 1994 DeafSA has been embarking on the transformation process alongside many other South African organisations in this new era of democracy. One of the highlights of this transformation was the change in the name of the organisation from SANCD to DeafSA, as well as the constitutional change, which resulted in the Deaf majority members serving on all the organisation’s management structures. This transformation is one of the biggest milestones in the history of DeafSA, as it meant that the philosophy of self-representation was achieved and it enabled DeafSA to be accepted as an ordinary member of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD).


DeafSA conducts its business according to the official mission statement which is quoted below:-


“To promote the interests of the Deaf and hard of hearing effectively on a national level in Southern Africa.”


DeafSA co-ordinates and facilitate the process of providing all kinds of services for the purpose of integrating the one (1) million Deaf South Africans into mainstream society.



Address all correspondence to the National Executive Director

National Chairperson: Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen Fundraising No: 01 100058 0007

National Executive Director: Bruno Druchen

Patron: Honourable Minister Essop Pahad Non Profit Organisation No: 000 701

The purpose of this memorandum is to give effect to one of DeafSA’s objectives as listed in our constitution, which is:


  • To pro-actively facilitate and successfully lobby for the acceptance, recognition, development, utilisation of resources/interpreter service of South African Sign Language, as a medium of communication with Deaf persons, as the 12th official language.


DeafSA regards this objective as a key towards effectively promoting all other interests of Deaf people because SASL is likened to a tree trunk on which all the branches of services to Deaf people can be built. DeafSA has thus far contributed towards the following legislation and codes of good practice:


·         Recognition of SASL as Deaf people’s primary mode of communication in terms of the South African Constitution Act No 108 of 1996.

·         Recognition of SASL as a medium of instruction for the purpose of educating Deaf Children – SA Schools Act.

·         Education White Paper 6 (DoE 2001).

·         White Paper on an Integrated National Disability Strategy, whereby the disability in general is premised on the social model away from the previous medical model (Office of the Deputy President 1997).

·         Codes of Good Practice on the Employment of People with Disabilities (DoL 2002).

·         Codes of Good Practice for People with Disabilities – Telecommunications and Broadcasting Industries (ICASA March 2006).


In addition DeafSA has spent the past twelve (12) years vigorously carrying out various activities aimed at developing and promoting South African Sign Language; the activities in question include the following:


·         During the year 2000 DeafSA, in partnership with the Office of the Status of Disabled Persons (OSDP) and Swedish National Association for the Deaf, compiled a comprehensive business plan detailing the process of developing and promoting SASL with the ultimate purpose of having SASL recognised as the12th official language. This business plan was subsequently submitted to Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB), a section 9 institution responsible for the development and promotion of multilingualism in South Africa, for endorsement and implementation. This 5-year business plan was submitted and endorsed by PanSALB in the year 2000. The period of five (5) years elapsed in 2005 but virtually nothing has thus far been done by PanSALB to implement the business plan during the allotted time period, save the fact that SASL has a National Language Body (NLB) within PanSALB.  

·         Conducted a National Deaf March during which a memorandum was handed to the Minister of Education to demand that SASL be used as a medium of instruction at all schools for the Deaf in line with the SA Schools Act.  Subsequently, the Educational Task Team (ETT) was established to deliberate and implement the demands of the Deaf March Memorandum. The ETT composed of representatives from DeafSA and the Department of Education (DoE). However, the work of the ETT has been lagging behind schedule because of a maze of bureaucracy within the Department of Education.

·         DeafSA successfully registered the unit standard for SASL as an additional language with SAQA.

·         During the course of the year 2006 DeafSA developed a Position Paper for SASL and SASL Interpreter Services. The Position Paper is still in draft format at this stage, pending inputs and endorsement from various stakeholders.

·         Facilitated the process of training SASL interpreters in partnership with Unisa with financial support from SETA……


DeafSA has been very honoured to have SASL mentioned in the legislations and codes of good practice listed above; however, DeafSA is very disappointed that the contents of these documents have never been applied in practice. One example is the fact that even though SASL is listed in the SA Schools Act as a medium of instruction, SASL is still not actually used as a medium of instruction in schools for the Deaf. This is what prompted DeafSA to lead a Deaf March to this effect in February 2003. 


The policies were decidedly developed for window dressing purposes. In this case a false impression is being created to the rest of the world that South Africa is a very inclusive country in this era of democracy while the Deaf community finds that the truth is the opposite. DeafSA’s conscious and systematic efforts to address this problem have remained in vain to date. The only logical conclusion that DeafSA could arrive at as a factor influencing the exclusion of Deaf people is that SASL is not one of the 11 official languages and therefore does not deserve to be placed on an equal footing with the other official languages.




SASL is a visual language used by hand, facial gesture and upper body movement. SASL was developed naturally and Deaf people have used SASL to communicate for centuries in spite of its history of oppression by the wider society.  SASL will continue to exist for many more centuries to come, in line with the saying:-


“As long as there are Deaf people, there will be Sign Language.”


SASL is a fully-fledged natural language, which developed through use by a community of users namely Deaf people, and it has its own grammatical rules (syntax), which are not like any other spoken languages. SASL is a true language in the sense that it is different from other systems of communication that are not regarded as languages. Like all other human languages, SASL can express the entire range of human experience. SASL uses strings of signs to package concepts in the same way other languages use strings of words. There is no one-to-one word-sign equivalent, one sign can be interpreted into a number of words and similarly one word can be interpreted into a number of signs. 


It is a well-known fact that the Deaf community exists in each and every country around the world. However, Sign Language is not universal; there are many naturally occurring indigenous Sign Languages around the world, just as there are many written languages.


Different countries worldwide use different Sign Languages, for example in the United States they use American Sign Language (ASL), in New Zealand they use New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) and in South Africa we use South African Sign Language (SASL) and so on. However, there are many similarities between dialects used around the world and this enable Deaf people from different countries to understand each other when they communicate in different Sign Languages.


One of the mandates of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) is to coordinate and encourage the maintenance of different Sign Languages around the world. Many countries worldwide, including South Africa, have fully developed Sign Languages. The excerpt below sums up this fact:


 “Sign Language is a real language, equivalent in status to any other language. Deaf persons can sign about any topic, concrete or abstract as economically, as effectively, as rapidly and as grammatically as hearing people can.  Sign Language is influenced by entirely equivalent historical social and psychological factors as spoken language - there are rules for attention-getting, turn-taking, story telling, there are jokes, puns and taboo signs, there are generational effects observed in Sign Language, metaphors and ‘slips of the hand’ ” (Penn, 1993, p.12).


Keeping in mind all the facts quoted above the Deaf community have proved adequately that SASL is a real language worth protection, maintenance and official recognition.



As noted above, the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) - of which DeafSA is one of the ordinary members - encourages the national federations of the Deaf (including DeafSA) to work towards official recognition of Sign Languages for the purpose of communication accessibility for Deaf people.

Many countries, particularly in Europe, have gone far in the acceptance, recognition and protection of their Sign Languages. European countries started giving more priority to official recognition of their Sign Languages after the European Parliament passed a resolution by means of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages in which member states were required to recognise their Sign Languages. The resolution to this effect was passed in 1992 that was eventually signed by member states. 

Recognition of Sign Languages around the world has taken place in many ways, but the end result is the same: that information, communication, services etc. become accessible to Deaf people in Sign Languages that are stark contrast to South Africa. The countries in which Sign Languages have been accepted, recognised and/or protected are listed below:




Uganda             Constitution – official language

Finland              Constitution – official language

Sweden             Accepted for education and accessibility reasons

Slovakia                        Recognised by law

Austria                          Recognised by law in 2005

Thailand                        Recognised by resolution

Spain                            Recognised by law in 2005

United State                  Accepted for accessibility reasons

Belgium                        Accepted in Flanders and Walloon (two different Sign Languages)

Cyprus                          Accepted for education

France                          Recognised by law in 2004

Germany                       Accepted, recognised or protected by the states of Germany

Ireland                           Accepted for education

Italy                              Four bills were due to be passed

The Netherlands Protected

Norway             Accepted Sign Language as the first language of deaf people

Portugal                        Constitution – official language

Slovenia                        The right to use Slovenian Sign Language protected

Switzerland                   Accepted for accessibility reasons

United Kingdom Accepted for accessibility reasons

Czech Republic Accepted for education and communication

Hungary                        Accepted for education and communication

Lithuania                       Sign Language as a native language accepted

Poland                          Constitution - Official language

New Zealand                  Constitution – Official language (effective April 2006)

Canada             Sign Language accepted for accessibility reasons

Venezuela                     Recognised by law

Colombia                       Recognised by law

Flanders                        Flemish Sign Language recognised in April 2006


It is noteworthy that Uganda, an African country, is one of the first countries around the world to officially recognise Ugandan Sign Language. After so many years Uganda remains the only African country ever to have officially recognised Sign Language. It is very unfortunate and resentfully disappointing that the most resourceful African country namely, South Africa has not yet recognised South African Sign Language (SASL) as an official language.


Secondly, we take notice with interest that New Zealand Sign Language is the only third official language in that country after Maori and English.  South Africa is known as a multilingual country because it has 11 official languages but a total of about (one 1) million of its citizens, that is Deaf citizens, cannot use any of these languages; not because Deaf people chose not to learn any of these languages, but because Deaf people have a disability that implies that their only language is South African Sign Language.


The countries around the world are officially recognising their Sign Languages at a faster pace than ever while South Africa remains at standstill after SASL was constitutionally recognised as Deaf people’s mode of communication twelve years ago in 1996.  This constitutional clause created lots of expectations in the Deaf community, as the year 1996 was seen to herald in a new era in which total integration of Deaf people through SASL would be a lasting reality.   The irony of this expectation turned out to be that ten years later, in 2006, the South African Deaf community has nothing more to show the world, but instead to witness a much longer list of countries worldwide that have since recognised their Sign Languages.




The answer to this question has already been noted throughout this memorandum, but if that is still not enough a more detailed answer lies in this quote:-


“Often individuals and groups are treated unjustly and suppressed by means of language. People who are deprived of linguistic human rights may thereby be prevented from enjoying other human rights, including fair political representation, a fair trial, access to education, access to information and freedom of speech, and maintenance of their cultural heritage”.  Overcoming Linguistic Discrimination, ed. Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and Robert Phillipson (Berlin 1995).


It is true that SASL holds the key to a Deaf person’s enjoyment of virtually all his/her human rights. Stated differently, Deaf people have no access to their rights unless SASL becomes readily available to them as a mean of access to communication, information and other forms of human experience. To this end, the Bill of Rights which forms Chapter 2 of the South African Constitution is useless to the Deaf community in absence of SASL. Deaf people’s rights are built on SASL, but this only language of Deaf people is not recognised as an official language. Therefore Deaf people demand their rights too, the rights which can only be enjoyed if SASL becomes one of the official languages in South Africa. The society in general has a responsibility to ensure that Deaf people are also not deprived of their human rights on the basis of their disability. The then Hon Deputy President, Mr Thabo Mbeki once confirmed this view in his foreword to the White Paper on Integrated National Disability Strategy that is quoted below:


“The concept of a caring society is strengthened and deepened when we recognise that disabled people enjoy the same rights as we do and that we have a responsibility towards the promotion of their quality of life”.


Therefore, the recognition of SASL will enable Deaf people to “enjoy the same rights” as other South African citizens and it is only through SASL that the quality of Deaf people’s lives can be promoted. 


While Deaf people, the users of SASL, are considered a minority group, at the count of one (1) million they are a much larger group than some of the users of the currently official languages. Therefore, how can South Africa define itself as a caring society if it continues to ignore such a large group?


It has been said that SASL is not standardised and therefore it is not ready to become an official language. DeafSA is in complete disagreement with this unproven assumption. It has been noted that SASL has existed for many centuries alongside the existence of Deaf people, which brings to mind the question: how long does it take to standardise a language? This view will ensure that SASL is never recognised officially.


Furthermore, it has been noted earlier in this memorandum that Deaf people can express the entire range of human experience in SASL and it is very doubtful that this could have been the case had SASL not been standardised.  Secondly, DeafSA as a member of the WFD has its Deaf representatives interacting with the Deaf community from many countries around the world through the activities of the WFD.


This proves that SASL is very comparable with other Sign Languages used around the world. Some of these countries have proved that Sign Language is a real language, a standardised language by officially recognising their Sign Languages. Finally, we have a Deaf MP who relies heavily on SASL to participate in robust debates, which take place in parliament. DeafSA does not believe that anyone can take part at this highest level of deliberations with a language that is not standardised. 


Our constitution confirms that South Africa is not only committed to correcting the past marginalisation, but also to listen to the people’s outcry and compete as strongly as possible with the rest of the world.


A quote of four (4) pertinent points from the preamble to the constitution is listed below:


o        “...Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;

o        Lay the foundation for a democratic and open society in which the government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by the law;

o        Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and

o        Build a united and democratic South Africa to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.”


The Deaf community too have experienced many decades of marginalisation during the apartheid era in South Africa and this marginalisation still continues today.


This memorandum provides an opportunity for the South African government to integrate the Deaf community in it attempts to heal the past by officially recognising SASL so that Deaf people can also enjoy their rights, as enshrined in the constitution and improve their quality of life by means of equal education opportunities. The recognition of SASL as an official language is Deaf people’s national outcry at the moment.  Therefore, by recognizing SASL as an official language the will of Deaf people would have been dealt with. It has been noted earlier in this memorandum that the list of countries, which recognises their Sign Languages is growing very fast - needless to say this is a family of nations that upholds the human rights of Deaf people. Therefore, DeafSA demands that South Africa recognises SASL as an official language so as to “take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.”




DeafSA believes that in order for SASL to be recognised officially, with subsequent human rights of Deaf people being upheld and enforced, it is imperative that all the sectors of our society join hands in the spirit of human solidarity to promote and maintain SASL. However, the Department of Arts and Culture should be at the forefront of running this process in close collaboration with DeafSA.


The points listed below present the recommendations of this memorandum:


a)       A Task Team composed of representatives from of DeafSA and Department of Arts and Culture should be established with immediate effect for the purpose of monitoring the process of promoting and maintaining SASL, which includes implementation of various projects.

b)       Parliament should effect constitutional amendments so that SASL becomes a 12th official language with immediate effect or within a period of six (6) months calculated from October 2006.

c)       The Department of Arts and Culture should provide funds for the development of SASL training materials, which include visual SASL dictionaries. This process should start by not later than March 2007.

d)       The Department of Arts and Culture should provide the necessary funds for the development of curriculum for the training of SASL instructors so that SASL instruction becomes a recognised profession.  This process is to start by March 2007.

e)       The Department of Education should liaise with the tertiary education institutions for the purpose of revising the curricula for public service professionals such as Doctors, Social Workers, Paramedics, Police, etc., to include inter alia SASL and Deaf Culture. These curricula should become effective from 2008.

f)         A comprehensive inter-departmental training programme for all the public service personnel on SASL and Deaf culture should be carried out with funding from each government department, with effect from January 2007.

g)       As a short-term solution relevant to point f) above, SASL interpreters should be made available at as many public service institutions, as possible, with immediate effect so that Deaf consumers can receive services in SASL. Funding for SASL interpreter should come from each public service institution. 


h)       The Department of Arts and Culture, in partnership with DeafSA and private sectors should run a mass awareness campaign to sensitise the public at large on SASL and Deaf culture starting in January 2007.

i)         The Department of Arts and Culture should liaise with DeafSA on how to implement recommendation 7A of the White Paper on an Integrated National Disability Strategy, particularly the continuous development of SASL interpretation as a profession.

j)         The Department of Education should liaise with DeafSA with immediate effect to discuss ways of implementing recommendation 9B of the White Paper on an Integrated National Disability Strategy, for the betterment of Deaf education.




The South African Deaf community continues to be subjected to a millennium of marginalisation at an era when many sectors of our society enjoy the fruits of democracy. DeafSA, as a guardian of the Deaf community, perceives that the way forward is to have SASL recognised as an official language, which will bring the process of marginalisation to an end.


The recognition of SASL will also enable the Deaf community to access their human rights and in that way correct the perception that Deaf people are the less significant members of our society.  Indeed, the official recognition of SASL would serve as a springboard from which to address the challenges of fully integrating the Deaf community into society. 









1 February 2007